By Mike Hess
Two announcements tend to suck the life out of a congregation: the pastor’s announcement of resignation and the search committee’s announcement that a qualified candidate has not been found to fill the pastoral vacancy. The unity, stability, and overall health of a local church can be deeply threatened when either announcement is made.
One of the challenges that caught me by surprise when I assumed the position of national representative of the GARBC was the task of finding qualified men to serve as pastors in our association. We are facing an unprecedented crisis of pastoral shortages. There seem to be more churches than qualified and willing pastors. This shortage of pastors is not unique to us, but appears to be a reality across the spectrum of theologically conservative ministries today.
This prompts me to ask a number of questions: Why are long-tenured pastorates becoming less common? Why do some churches struggle at keeping pastors? Why do the majority of men who begin in the pastorate not retire in the pastorate? In other words, why are so many men leaving the ministry or not even considering full-time vocational ministry in the first place?
Contributors to the Crisis
Let me suggest a few factors that I believe are contributing to this crisis.
Unrealistic expectations from churches
The following are some reasons given for local churches dismissing their pastors: sermons were too long, sermons had too much Bible, he was too evangelistic, he practiced church discipline, he focused on his family too much, he didn’t visit the sick enough, we just didn’t like his personality, our service schedules were changed, he changed the music of our church. These issues speak more about the church than they do about the pastor. Each of these subjects relate more to personality and preference than to Biblical qualifications. Churches must understand that being qualified does not mean that the man is done growing and maturing. No pastor arrives at a church as the one man who can meet every member’s expectation. Furthermore, churches that tend to struggle with pastoral tenure will be less attractive for future candidates.
Unrealistic expectations from pastors
When I first entered the pastorate, I erroneously thought I could be the one guy who could avoid the common problems that men face when ministering to sinners. Even though solid theology had taken root in my heart, reality had not.
No pastor has yet to discover an ecclesiastical utopia. Consider how you can apply your theology to a church setting. Nowhere does God promise a conflict free life with other sinners. Scripture never indicates that everyone will respond favorably to sound Biblical preaching. Even the early church experienced some consternation for confronting sin and implementing loving and restorative church discipline (see 1 Corinthians 5). Paul knew what it was to have his motives questioned (2 Cor. 11:6–15). He understood well how to deal with believers who couldn’t get along with each other (Phil. 4:2–3). Churches that Paul ministered in struggled with sin issues like disunity (2 Thess. 3:14–15), corrupting the gospel (Gal. 1:8–9), sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5), and harboring an unforgiving spirit (Philemon). Scripture screams this message to pastors: You will face a multitude of problems when you serve sinners.
So what has brought us to this point? Dr. Bruce McAllister, director of pastor relations at Bob Jones University, states that a change in thinking has occurred in recent years—especially among professing Christian parents. Moreover, some parents consider a life of ministry as a step down in the “quality of life.”
Starting well, finishing badly
One difficult truth to face is that most who graduate from seminary will not retire in the ministry. Some will realize that ministry wasn’t where God wanted them in the first place. Sadly, some will become disqualified. Many will pursue more financially lucrative careers. I believe that many men simply get burned out with the toll that church and personal conflict can take on themselves and their families.
Encouraging Pastoral Longevity
Allow me to suggest several ways local churches can encourage pastoral longevity.
Make it difficult for your pastor/pastors to leave
Churches that make it a point to bless and encourage their pastors tend to experience longer pastoral tenure. Encourage your pastor through his compensation, time off, continuing education, family time, personal growth, and overall spiritual health.
Rethink your approach to education
Rarely is a man ready to pastor a church upon Bible college graduation. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but those are rare. More investment can be given to pastoral internships, where a young man can be mentored by a seasoned pastor in a healthy local church setting. Thankfully, many seminaries are taking a more balanced approach to education that involves both the classroom and “on the job” training through pastoral internships.
It’s easy for churches to forget that pastors are learning, growing, and changing into the image of Christ. In that process they will occasionally fail to meet your expectations. Patience is always better than condemnation. The same patience you would want shown to you should also be shown to church leaders.
Network with other doctrinally aligned churches
Being an active part of a fellowship of doctrinally sound churches provides an opportunity for churches to help other churches and for pastors to encourage other pastors. Pastors need other pastors. This became apparent to me as a very young pastor who became a part of a local state fellowship. Those friendships provided much-needed encouragement and wisdom to Christina and me in our early years of ministry. Both pastors and local churches are better off partnering with doctrinally alike partners than they would be going alone. This is especially true when churches are looking for pastors.
Jesus Christ Is Building His Church
Here’s the bottom line: There’s no reason for any of us to be hopeless or in despair. The church is the purchased possession of God. He cares about her spiritual health far more than we do. God is still raising up church planters and faithful undershepherds and is restarting/revitalizing churches. The hard reality is that local churches need to be pastored by qualified and faithful undershepherds. The freeing reality is that Jesus Christ is still building His church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her.
Mike Hess is national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.